2014 was a relatively quiet year for documentaries. There was no Searching for Sugarman or 20 Feet from Stardom, no sensational hit that bridged the considerable gap between nonfiction-film-lovers and mainstream audiences. Perhaps this year’s relative lack of noise will prove somewhere down the line to work in the favor of the genre, as 2014 saw some of the most innovative music documentaries of recent memory, shedding the prevailing 21st century assumption that a “music documentary” most often means a look back at rock and roll history with at least one member of U2 featured as a talking head.
There are numerous honorable mentions that didn’t make this list, many of which tackle underrepresented histories or at least exhibit an effort to do something new with the form — Pulp: A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets, Jingle Bell Rocks, The Past is a Grotesque Animal and Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton: This is Stones Throw Records come to mind. But here are the six music documentaries released commercially this year that I found most innovative, insightful, and rewarding:
20,000 Days on Earth
What starts off as a familiar portrait of the alienating power of fame — a reference to The Man Who Fell to Earth shows up early — gradually unravels into an in-depth diary of the everyday life of a rock star. Yes, Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s glimpse into the life of Nick Cave in a manufactured 24-hour timeframe blurs the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, which mirrors its subject’s blending of life and art/work. But beyond its stylistic elegance, playful genre-bending, and its subject’s endless well of poetic insights, 20,000 Days on Earth is an admirably straightforward depiction of the artist from the standpoint of a type of sober self-reflection that only comes with graceful aging.
Bjork — Biophilia Live
Bjork’s 2011 album Biophilia attempted to transcend the supposed boundaries of the commercial record, organizing the artist’s songs as part of a transmedia experience that could be assembled via various digital devices and web resources. However, the experiment itself threatened to obscure the object of artistry being promoted. In keeping with the spirit of the album yet expanding upon it, Peter Strickland and Nick Fenton’s concert film chooses to embrace these dissociations by exploring the inherent contradictions of a “live” recording. The filmmakers integrate video art into the genre of the concert documentary while at the same time they capture the energy of Bjork’s multimedia stage show. As a result of its almost Wagnerian move of combining multiple art forms as one, Biophilia Live is the most innovative and exhilarating concert documentary since Shut Up and Play the Hits.
Death Metal Angola
Jeremy Xido’s examination of the Angolan death metal scene contextualizes the music as a cathartic and community-building resource for a generation raised amongst the ruins of war. But in an intelligent and seemingly counterintuitive move, the scope of Death Metal Angola is decidedly modest, forgoing grand historical narratives or sweeping statements on the exportable power of music in favor of depicting the grassroots preparation of a music festival within the devastated city of Huambo. The film’s patient observations of everyday life, which encourages its subjects to talk on behalf of and represent themselves, deftly avoids contrivances and ends up speaking volumes about the localized, immediate importance of music.
Mistaken for Strangers
Tom Berninger’s Mistaken for Strangers is only a music documentary on the surface. In a deft meta maneuver, this supposed illustration of The National on tour ultimately cycles back to reveal its subject as itself. The film’s content depicts the complicated relationship between two brothers — one the lead singer of a very successful indie rock band, the other the frustrated would-be filmmaker behind the camera — yet Mistaken for Strangers as a complete cinematic object is a totem of self-actualization, an emblem of proof that one can overcome the shadows that burden them by embracing those very shadows. Mistaken for Strangers’ self-referencing containment, which makes the film read like Berninger’s Burden of Dreams and Fitzcarraldo all at once, may leave the viewer with nowhere else to go after its breezy 75-minutes have come to an end, but it’s a fun, endearing and unexpected road worth taking.
Nas: Time is Illmatic
Is this film about the making of a landmark 1994 rap album a hagiography of its subject, celebrated hip-hop artist Nas? Absolutely, but One9’s Time is Illmatic makes a convincing, well-argued, and enthralling case for the immortality of its subject’s debut album. Using a combination of contemporary interviews, archival footage and Nas’s return to his muse, the Queensbridge housing projects, Time is Illmatic stages a substantive overview of the aesthetic, political and biographical context of the album Illmatic. Where many music documentaries settle for received wisdom and hyperbolic declarations about the importance of their subjects, Time is Illmatic provides a rich and compelling history lesson that makes a detailed case about how and why Illmatic changed hip-hop.
We Always Lie to Strangers
A town of only 10,000 permanent residents that houses more theater seats than Broadway, Branson, Missouri, is a strange and uniquely American attraction. AJ Schnack and David Boone Wilson’s We Always Lie to Strangers begins with an overview of Branson’s various musicians and their acts but gradually unfolds into a nuanced look at the revealing contradictions of a town enduring the recession while peddling a nostalgic and romanticized vision of Americana. Where Branson may lend itself to quirk or knee-jerk dismissal, We Always Lie to Strangers takes seriously within this regional attraction its demonstration of American culture that serves to hide the bubbling tensions of lying at the intersection of economics, religion, and social life.